Louisiana comforts in Cambridge
There are infinite ways to describe food eloquently, evocatively, lovingly. But sometimes you just want to say “yum.’’
This is the case at Tupelo, a new restaurant serving “comfort food with a Southern drawl’’ in the old Magnolias space in Cambridge. The term “comfort food’’ has become an old saw, nearly meaningless. It can cover everything from meatloaf to wonton soup. Here, though, it seems the most apt label: These dishes are truly comfortable and comforting, offering layers of taste and texture you can’t easily pick apart, and don’t really want to. The braised, the fried, the stewed, and the roasted share the stage, an easy ensemble. There is delicious synthesis on your plate - no need to overthink it.
The person turning out etouffee and gumbo, daube of beef and BBQ chicken, is Rembs Layman. Formerly of Matt Murphy’s, Chez Henri, and Pomodoro, here he cooks like Julia Child on the skids, a French chef in a trailer park kitchen. He has family in Louisiana and has spent time eating there since he was a child. He clearly understands this food, but he’s not married to by-the-letter iterations of it. (For one thing, his dishes go lighter on the butter.)
The restaurant is co-owned by Mike Walker and Renee McLeod of Petsi Pies. It’s a relaxed little space with tile floors, dark red and cream paint on the walls, copper-topped tables, and murals of New Orleans left over from Magnolias. Specials are written on the windows in red. There’s a small staff; the tattooed guy behind the bar who serves you a beer while you wait for a table may well be the same person who takes your order once you’re seated. There’s a bust of Elvis in the kitchen and a portrait of the King over the pickup window; Tupelo, Miss., was his birthplace, and the man did like to eat.
Something tells me he would have approved of Tupelo’s daube of beef, which is off-the-hook good. The dish makes slow-cooking seem showy and Wagyu seem like putting on airs. Here is a humble brisket doused with red wine and braised, the meat equivalent of a great massage; with a sigh of contentment, the beef gives up its toughness and relaxes into something tender and mellow. It’s surrounded by dark brown jus that changes slightly in flavor from night to night, reflecting the hand of the cook. It comes with a bed of mashed potatoes that at first bite seem disappointingly lumpy; keep chewing and the warm maize flavor of pozole reveals itself. Those lumps are kernels, and putting them in mashed potatoes is a stroke of flavor genius. To keep the dish from sinking under the weight of its own coziness, there is a drizzle of horseradish cream on top of the meat, and on the side, slow-cooked greens with cider vinegar, ginger, and curry; they taste like Lemon Zinger tea. They’re too sour for their own good, the one misstep in this dish.
Also wonderful are the daily etouffees and jambalayas. Etouffee is savory and satisfying, based on a roux and the Louisiana “holy trinity’’ of onions, celery, and green pepper; the crawfish stew is topped with two still in their shells. (Twist off the head, peel back the shell, and pull out the meat.) Jambalaya is a wetter version than some found in New Orleans, the rice studded with crawfish and bites of spicy andouille sausage. Layman’s gumbo is lightly thickened and on the soupy side, but with phenomenal flavor. The bowl includes okra, andouille, pulled chicken, and rice.
A small plate features juicy fried oysters with good crunch, but what makes the dish stand out are the puckery, pickle-y green tomatoes they’re served with. Turkey meatballs come in a spicy sauce. Crispy grits with a side of hot sauce are a frequent special: little squares fried golden, mild and creamy on the inside, oddly reminiscent of good fried tofu. The side of sauce they come with turns out to be a bottle of Frank’s RedHot; one expects something house-made after hearing it described as a side.
Chicken here is roasted rather than fried, though the fried version is sometimes offered as a special. A half-bird is bathed in bourbon-maple barbecue sauce, sweet and tangy and addictive in its balance; the meat under the skin is juicy and full of flavor. The chicken is served on top of cheddar grits with a little salad of greens. It’s a well-composed plate with pleasing variety, an unusually good rendition of this dish.
Fried catfish is good, too (though not as interesting as some of the other offerings); a piece of semolina-crusted fish comes with more of those green tomatoes, mashed potatoes, and pickled jalapeno aioli. The jalapeno flavor doesn’t come through enough to jazz this up, but the fish is nicely fried.
The least of the entrees is a plate of crepes filled with spinach, cheese, and tomatoes. The crepes themselves are excellent, but the spicing in the filling is too sweet. It makes these taste like blintzes and overpowers the smoked mozzarella inside. A shaved fennel salad on the side is refreshing, though the fennel could be shaved thinner.
The dessert menu hits the right notes with the likes of pecan pie and banana pudding. Rachael Cummings makes the sweets (though Layman says a Petsi pie may turn up occasionally). Tupelo’s brown butter pecan pie is all Southern sweetness balanced by woody nuts, a worthy slice. It comes topped with Tupelo honey ice cream made by Toscanini’s. Coconut cream pie gets a welcome twist from bits of peanut butter crunch candy. A double chocolate bread pudding is dry on the two occasions we try it.
Tupelo has a beer and wine license. The wine is reasonably priced and includes biodynamic Alsatian pinot blanc ($26 per bottle) and Argentine Malbec ($28). But it’s beer that really suits this food. There are two rotating selections on tap, plus the likes of Allagash white, Duvel, and Abita Turbodog in bottles. It’s nice to see the last, the quintessential Louisiana beer. There’s also sweet tea and a watermelon sangria that tastes almost exactly like Jolly Ranchers.
Tupelo’s entrees range from $9 to $15, more proof that one can eat well without spending a lot of money. It makes the food that much more satisfying, and probably helps Tupelo’s popularity. On a weekend night, you may face an awkward wait crammed into a corner by the bar. Tupelo takes reservations for parties of four or more, but only Sunday through Thursday before 6:30 p.m.
But what’s a little discomfort when such comfort follows? You’ll say it with me: Yum.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.